If it feels like cannibalism is everywhere these days, you’re not mistaken.
The cannibal romance Bones and All, by Timothy Chalamet (Timothée Chalamet) starring, now in theaters. Another latest film, the dark comedy-thriller The Menu , flirts with the theme by pairing food with death. Netflix recently set a viewership record for September Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. January brings us the critically acclaimed cannibal horror Fresh. Plus in recent years there have been Hulu’s Yellowjackets and indie breakout Original etc.
So while you’re feasting with family and friends this holiday weekend, we reached out to Long Island University biology professor Bill Shutter, author of the critically acclaimed book Cannibalism : Author of and A Perfectly Natural History of A Dark Banquet: Strange Lives of Blood and Vampires . Together we chatted about cannibalism and entertainment, and what makes the West’s biggest taboo so alluring.
I think we are biologically driven to be repelled by the idea of cannibalism. But is that accurate?
I would say not exactly. I think culture is king. When I set out to write a book about cannibalism, I was amazed – how common it is in nature. I’m talking about hundreds of species, from invertebrates to great apes, that eat their young for reasons we didn’t know until recently. The partisan line is always that the only reason you see cannibalism in the animal kingdom is if there are starvation conditions, or if you squeeze creatures into stressful captivity conditions – except for a few creatures like black widow spiders and praying mantises.
Scientists are beginning to discover that this is not the case. Cannibalism occurs for a variety of reasons – such as parental care or unpredictable environmental conditions or sexual selection. For example, if you’re a cod laying 5 million eggs, it’s not like Tony and Tina are over there. You’re looking at the equivalent of a raisin. They are very nutritious. There is no danger in consuming them. Probably more fish are cannibals.
But humans are not cod. One would think that even if there were some human cultures that did it, it would be innate to find it wrong – just as we are innate in finding incest wrong even if it still happens.
With incest, you limit the gene pool, and that’s the problem. As for cannibalism, there are diseases associated with eating humans – there is one in New Guinea, but I don’t think it has ever spread worldwide.
Culturally, once you get into humans, we decide if it’s ok to eat her after she dies because it pays homage to her in some way – or if that’s disgusting, you Think she needs to be buried.
In Western culture – from Greek times to Roman times and everyone else – there is this notion that cannibalism is the worst thing you can do. It has to do with what the other thinks. If you’re a good ancient Greek, you don’t eat dead bodies. But those other people do, so they’re not even human. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon of the West. It has arguably become the number one taboo in the West. If other cultures were practicing cannibalism when Westerners came along, they insisted that the practice would not decrease.
Thus, in a world dominated by Western culture, any trace of cannibalism as a ritual is lost. People handing out t-shirts won’t tolerate it. But there are cultures that have not been influenced by the West, and until recently experienced cannibalism, such as burial rights. Some groups in South America are horrified to hear Western anthropologists say we bury the dead. So I don’t think there’s anything evolved, or a gene, that prevents us from cannibalism. I think it’s culture.
interesting. You notice that this is the No. 1 taboo in the West. Setting taboos in movies is as old as movies themselves. But I don’t recall so many projects referencing this topic in such a short period of time.
Yes. I have a hypothesis about this. Suppose cannibalism is the number one taboo. Now you add food to it and you’re hooked. When you look at it through the filter of fiction or these stories about crazy murderers, it has a bloody side that appeals to people, and you have that appeal. Twenty years ago, it was Hannibal Lecter; now it’s Timothée Chalamet.
Why, if you guessed it, do you think there has been a recent surge in projects about this? Why here and now?
We’re really desensitized to on-screen violence, especially when you can put a fictional filter on it. Now you can have the blood and guts and gore that people live on, but also have this idea of food. There might be another reason, but to me, that’s why it’s so popular.
I suspect – this kind of cross-pollination is somewhat similar to what you’re talking about – that it’s also a matter of maximizing content. Over 400 scripted shows are regularly scheduled each year, plus tons of movies. We no longer have taboos.
I think it started with Bonnie and Clyde, the movie400, when you can splatter blood all over the place. We’ve become desensitized to extreme gore and violence. Plus, there’s a visceral pull when you hear the word. When I say the word “cannibalism,” you have a knee-jerk reaction. So whether you’re writing a news article or a novel, you have an inner hook.
So is this story. It’s an awkward question to ask, but I’m thinking of romantic thrillers like Bones and All and, to a lesser extent, things like Fresh Item : Is there anything sexy about cannibalism?
good question. I’d say cannibalism is, for the most part, just as exciting as vampirism – although the former is more extreme. Again, these themes only have this effect if they can be viewed through a fictionalized filter. Food – often seen as sexy – plus taboo equals obsession.
And the Armie Hammer scandal. The idea of cannibalism as a real-life fetish is disturbing. How common is this?
I’m not a criminal psychologist so I’m not one to talk about the scope of this crime. There are many disorders that can cause this behavior. I believe it may look popular because it jumps off the page. If you hear about someone being stabbed to death, it doesn’t make the papers. But if you hear about someone killing and devouring someone, everyone has heard about it on the news.
Did the number of projects, the amount of interest on this surprise you?
I’m not. In 1970 and book Alive, people are obsessed with Donner Party and cannibalistic survival stories – filmed into a really bad movie.
instead of Alive, is there a movie or show that addresses this topic in your opinion Especially, um, well done?
There is still a lot of good work to be done on Donner Party, arguably the most famous case of cannibalism in American history. The Silence of the Lambs is a great thriller for many reasons. I don’t think it has topped the list [as an item] for cannibalism.
Is there anything I didn’t ask about cannibalism and pop culture that you think our readers would be interested in?
People often ask me what are the two most amazing things about writing this book. The first is the prevalence of cannibalism in nature. But the second is how prevalent it has been in Europe for hundreds of years, given the Western taboo against cannibalism. There is medical cannibalism, where almost every part of the human body is used to “cure” every disease or mental illness. Get body parts ready and powdered or drunk. This continued until the beginning of the century. It even appears in the large pharmacological encyclopedia The Merck Index. Then it disappeared from the history books. They just removed it.
Now the last vestige is people eating the placenta after giving birth. That’s the remnants of drug cannibalism. It falls under the category of alternative medicine because if you consume the placenta, you will be replenishing hormones that may have been lost after birth. This is not something that is prevalent in the world today. Mainly Americans from the 1970 years onwards.
So I hope readers enjoy their cranberry sauce today. 1970